I’ve shared before in this column the story of my family’s move from Michigan to Minnesota when I was a kid. Our modest backyard bordered an expansive wetland, a not uncommon feature in an eastern Minnesota suburb. The wetland was beautiful in every season, and we loved living next to it except for one thing — it came with an annual infestation of the Minnesota state bird, aka the mosquito.
Of course, we were not entirely unfamiliar with the nasty critter; we had mosquitoes in Michigan, too. In fact, some of my earliest summer memories are of laying in bed, too itchy to sleep, scratching and scratching at mosquito bites.
But, we soon discovered our experiences with Michigan mosquitoes in no way prepared us for the Minnesota mosquitoes living in our backyard. All summer, they arrived daily in an abundance we had never seen in our original homeland.
During the daylight hours, one was usually safe from their pesky bites, but once dusk hit, all bets were off. The mosquitoes would descend in giant droves, swarming any warm-blooded body they could find.
They were unavoidable and ubiquitous, but as long as you kept moving, they didn’t actually bite, thus giving rise to what my Dad called, “The Minnesota Polka,” an elaborate dance that involved jumping, kicking, swatting at the air and smacking one’s own face, arms, and legs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.
Years later, I heard a scientist explain this phenomenon. Mosquitoes can’t land if there is more than a slight breeze.
“A small fan is more of a deterrent than any bug spray on the market,” he expounded. This was certainly true with Minnesota mosquitoes.
During dry years, we might go the whole summer without a single mosquito bite here in western Dakota. All last summer, as we watched the garden shrivel and dry, the trees fade and lean, the grass stop growing before it even began, I kept saying, “Well, at least there’s no mosquitoes.”
It was cold — or in this case, brutally hot — comfort indeed.
This year, every week, sometimes more often even, a passing shower or evening thunderstorm shows up on the horizon, feathery blue lines streaming down from the dark clouds.
The regularly timed doses of moisture have brought more wildflowers than I’ve ever seen before. The cactuses are in full bloom. The trees are so heavy with bright leaves some of their branches curve down like willows. The grass in the windbreaks is chin high. Of course, this also means — as you may have guessed — an explosion of mosquitoes.
A different breed
As with the human denizens of this region, Dakota mosquitoes are tough as nails, and they are wiley. “The Minnesota Polka” is useless, as is brisk walking, running away, or even, I discovered one evening, biking. Perhaps not surprising, since wind is our specialty in this part of the country, air movement is decidedly not a deterrent for our particular strain of the pest.
Nor do the swarms confine themselves to the evening hours for hunting. In the dewy morning, the sweltering heat of midday, the deepest dark of night, Dakota mosquitoes will find you, and they will extract their weight, many times over, in your blood. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? When there’s only a summer or two per decade you can thrive, you’ve got to take full advantage.
Earlier in June, marveling at the beautiful, shimmering grasses waving around the front porch of my little writing shack, I decided I was going to start playing songs outside every evening. I took to social media with the hashtag #summerofsongs and I began sharing videos of these mini concerts.
Dakota mosquitoes can do a fair amount of snacking while their victims are actively moving, but a person sitting relatively still for several minutes, attempting to look nonchalant for the camera? Let’s just say it’s a nightly feast of epic proportions.
So, I get my version of heaven in the form of gorgeous foliage and winter stores of hay, and the mosquitoes get theirs in the form of me playing songs on the porch. Not ideal, but I think we’d both agree, it is worth it!
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